Now You See Us, Now You Don’t

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working my way through A.N. Wilson’s The Victorians. For a 21st century American, I find, reading about the Victorians is the act of staring into what is sometimes a window and sometimes a mirror.

Looking in the window, we see that on the whole, the Victorians were less troubled than we by the plight of the poor and more devoted to flights of public piety. We would not with an easy conscience turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the poor and their children starving to death in plain view in the streets of our cities. Neither, I think, would we refuse to seat a member of Congress solely on the basis of that member’s unwillingness to swear an oath on the Bible.

There is much talk about religion and devotion to God in our time, but piety just doesn’t inform our public life the way it did for the Victorians–Pat Robertson and his ilk notwithstanding. Congress doesn’t debate theological matters the way Victorian Parliaments did.

Charles DarwinI have to admit that an exception to this arises in the case of Darwin. The Kansas State Board of Education and the alleged “controversy” about evolution come to mind. In our time, however, opponents of evolutionary theory try to use scientific language to advance their point of view.

The Victorians were under no such constraint. Bishop Wilberforce, debating evolution with the biologist T.H. Huxley in 1860, is said to have asked whether “it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that [Huxley] claimed his descent from a monkey.” Not to be outdone in ad hominem argument, Huxley replied, “If…the question is put to me, would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.” Both parties earn an A+ for rhetoric but a D- for science.

Looking in the mirror that the Victorians hold up to us, we see a people so convinced of their own virtue and noble intent that in general they approve of everything they do on the world stage. For the Victorians this included the posturing and incompetence of the Crimean War as well as the oppression and opportunism of the Raj. For us, the same self-satisfaction and blundering tone-deafness are apparent in our military adventures and alliances over the last 50 years. Too often, as it was for the Victorians, the underlying principle seems to be that since we’re nice people, what we’re doing must be right.

For our lives as individuals, the Victorians also hold up a mirror. For us as for them, the most able and admirable are not always the most influential. Hard work and fair play are not always rewarded. The verities of the age may tell us one thing and our experience something else.

Like the Victorians grappling with the implications of Darwinism, many of us face a longing of the spirit that our attainments do not comfort or address. Thomas Hardy speaks for many of us as much as he did for his contemporaries when he wrote, “I have been looking for God for 50 years, and I think that if he had existed I should have discovered him.”

One More Post about New Orleans

Back in October I wrote a series of posts about the week I spent in New Orleans as a Katrina relief volunteer. Last week I put together a slide show of the trip for use during church yesterday. The slide show was a huge time sink, as such projects can so often be. The problem for me was that when I started I had no clear idea of what story I wanted to tell. There’s a bit of that indecision still visible (at least to me) in the final product.

Nevertheless, I’m linking the slide show here. If you’ve read this far, I hope you enjoy the show!

I think I made a resolution to post here at least three times a week. That thought obviously lasted about as long as the typical new year’s resolution. But who knows? Maybe I’ll start doing better by this blog. Truth be told, it has been an ongoing disappointment that the thing won’t write itself…

Happy Birthday, Dear Internet

I know it looks and acts younger, but the Internet is 40 today. It was on October 29, 1969, that the first message was sent from one computer (the Internet’s first node) to another computer (the Internet’s second node).

By today’s standards, the computers of 1969 were real clunkers. That first message was only two letters long, after all, with confirmatory phone calls between letters. I like to point out that a typical cellphone these days has more processing power than NASA’s Apollo control room at the time of the first moon landing. Most of the power in today’s computers, of course, goes toward making the computer seem less like a machine and more like a companion.

Even so, I often wish I had been an Internet pioneer. On that momentous day in 1969 when a bunch of geeks at Stanford were creating the Internet, I was in my ninth month of military service. I didn’t really appreciate that computers had already seriously affected my life. Thanks to a tip I got from a colonel on the day I signed in at Pease Air Force Base, the Air Force’s primitive personnel database was working to keep me from being sent to Vietnam.

Here’s the back story on that. The database was totally unprepared for “irrational” input, in my case a signed and dated but otherwise blank volunteer statement. I was proud to volunteer for…nothing and nowhere. That mattered because of the way the database worked.

Say, for example, that the Air Force needed a 922 specialist (like me) with a rank of E-5 (like me) to go to Vietnam. The computer would look for 922 E-5’s who had volunteered for Vietnam. I hadn’t volunteered for Vietnam (or anywhere else) so my name wouldn’t pop up.  If nobody’s name popped up, the computer would switch to the list of non-volunteers, the people who had not signed volunteer statements. My name, however, wasn’t on that list because I had signed the volunteer statement. The result was that the computer couldn’t find me either as a volunteer or as a non-volunteer.

Leonard Kleinrock, the computer scientist interviewed in the article linked above, speaks of the openness and trust among computer scientists and Internet users in those early days. That sort of innocence about implications probably carried over into the programming of that Air Force personnel database. From that point of view, my blank volunteer statement probably counts as an early computer “hack.”

So, maybe I really was a pioneer!

A Year After Our Personal Longest Day

One year ago today, Marge had her cancer surgery. That was the day the Caringbridge journal I wrote really got underway. Remembering the day after a year is painful but somehow essential.

There are parts of the story that we love to tell, such as the fact that Marge showed up for surgery with a smiley face (rendered in ovarian cancer teal) on her stomach. She had been told that “a happy surgeon does his best work.” What better way to ensure that happiness than with a great big smile.

The whole idea of the smiley face was so much fun that we didn’t think it through. Almost by accident the smile was rendered with a washable marker. We’ve been told since that if we had used a permanent marker, the smile might have caused the surgery to be postponed! But Fortuna smiled on us.

I also like to tell the part of the story about how at the end of the surgery I knew the news was good by the bounce in the surgeon’s step. From meeting him many times, however, I’ve since realized that that’s just the way he walks—whether the news is good or bad. That day the news was good. Fortuna smiled once again.

Over the past year I’ve referred a lot of people to the Caringbridge site, secure in my belief that the whole story was there. Yet I now find that the worst moment of Marge’s entire time in the hospital wasn’t mentioned there at all! Here, as the insufferable Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story:

For four days after the surgery Marge endured a ventilator tube. I was there with her when the tube was finally removed. She seemed exhausted and ready to sleep, so I went home and wrote, exultantly, “Great news today! The ventilator tube is out!”

What I didn’t know was that at just about the time I was writing those words, Marge was falling into what is called narcotic induced apnea. In plain English, the pain medicine she was receiving (Fentanyl) sedated her so much that she stopped breathing! As a result, she got Naloxone, the anti-overdose drug, to overcome the apnea. This started her breathing again but left her with the God-awful pain.

I wouldn’t have known anything about this until the next day if it hadn’t been for Carolyn, the minister from our church, who showed up at the hospital just as Marge’s situation began to get dicey and then came to the house to tell me what she had seen. I was set to rush back to the hospital, but Carolyn talked me out of it by explaining that Marge was finally resting comfortably and might actually get some sleep if I left her alone.

The truth about the journal is that I got better at writing down the whole story as the long weeks passed. Several people have asked me why I put so much into that journal, and the answer is that the act of writing helped me find the courage and focus I needed every day as a caregiver and advocate.

I wrote in the journal nearly every day, and it forced me to do my best to understand the swirl of events. An additional benefit was that the journal made it possible for friends and family to know what was going on without my having to tell the story over and over.

The biggest surprise for me now is I don’t want to write about the BIG LIFE LESSONS that the journal always seemed to be bumping against. It’s true that I’m working on a book that will be derived from the material in the journal, but the book isn’t and won’t be about BIG LIFE LESSONS.

I find that I’m much more interested in writing about small lessons, such as how we managed to get through 3:00 a.m. night after night. The short answer to that, by the way, is together. The long answer will be the book.

What Marge and I treasure most now is the normal, uneventful life we are leading. Now back at school full-time, Marge didn’t even remember that today was the anniversary of her surgery until I mentioned it to her. I think this is how it should be.

Deciding to End a Life

Mom and I sat side by side in a small conference room in Maine Medical Center. We were listening to a doctor explain, as gently as he could, that the time had come for us to make decisions about my father.

A few weeks earlier, Dad had undergone quadruple bypass surgery. He had recovered from it fairly well, but during his first night home from the hospital he suffered a massive stroke. After a few days back in the hospital, he slipped into a coma. Now we were facing the reality that he wouldn’t be coming back to us.

Dad’s condition, in the doctor’s opinion, was irreversible, yet with the feeding tube and ventilator in place, he could be kept alive indefinitely. The doctor asked if Dad had ever prepared an advance directive. The answer was no. As far as I knew, Dad had never said anything at all about what he would want in the circumstances we now faced.

Mom turned to me and said, “What do you think?”

“I think it’s your call, Mom.”

She was silent.

Finally I said, “If you don’t want to decide or if you can’t decide, Mom, I will.”

“I think you’d better,” she said.

I looked at the doctor. “Are you saying he can’t get well?”

It’s the kind of question doctors usually hate, but this doctor didn’t hesitate. “Yes, that’s what I’m saying.”

“We have to let him go,” I said. Then I was in tears and couldn’t talk anymore.

“We’ll keep him comfortable,” the doctor said.

Dad hung on for three more days.

All of this happened 15 years ago, and I still sometimes find myself wondering if I did the right thing. Should I have pushed Mom harder to make the decision herself? Should I have waited a few more days to decide? Should I have asked to talk to another doctor? Should I have just said we were going to wait for a miracle?

These are the hardest questions anyone can face. I did the best I could without much time to prepare or to think.

The kind of counseling that would have helped Mom and me, that perhaps would have led Dad to tell us what he wanted in advance may or may not have been widely available in 1994. But it’s available now.

Sarah Palin and her ilk, however, want to make sure health insurance won’t cover it. With her gift for twisting the truth beyond recognition, she calls such counseling “hav[ing] to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel‘ so his bureaucrats can decide” whether someone lives or dies.

It’s hard for me not to take that personally. I had to pull the plug on my own father. It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make in 63 years of living. I could have used some help.

That’s why I wrote to every member of my state’s Congressional delegation urging them to stand up to Sarah Palin and all the rest who want to derail healthcare reform. The story of my father’s last days is old news now, but families everywhere face the same heartbreaking dilemma every day.

Many opponents of healthcare reform don’t seem to care. If you’re someone who does care, however, it’s time for you to speak up.

Fenway Vanity, Part 3

I swear I won’t go on about this anymore after today. It’s just that it took me a while to figure out how to extract the audio track for the rendition of “God Bless America” that we sang at Fenway Park during the 7th inning stretch.

The video of this, by the way, is definitely not for public consumption. I’m guessing it was shot with a hand-held camera because it’s so jerky. The sound seems to have been recorded from what was coming out of the speakers in the park, rather than through a direct feed from the mics. Also, there is image and recording information visible in the corner of the video frame—rather like what you used to see in home videos in the early days of the camcorder, when people didn’t know how to turn this stuff off.

Anyway, the point is that we got to sing for the 7th inning stretch. This was a song that wasn’t in our repertoire, and we had about three days to learn and memorize it.

In the event, the musical wheels came off a bit just before the final “God Bless America,” but you might not have noticed that without this heads-up from me.

So, without further ado, here are The Grateful Dads singing “God Bless America.”

The Ghost of Summer Past

…they came unto a land
In which it seeméd always afternoon.

—Tennyson, The Lotos-eaters

honeymoon-cottageOn Sunday, we attended a surprise anniversary party for our friends Craig and Ethel. They own and operate a summer resort known as The Cape on a lake not far from here.

We hadn’t visited the place for a long time. During the 80’s, however, we spent a week or two of nearly every summer at The Cape. In 1983, the year Elizabeth was three, we stayed in the Honeymoon Cottage. That’s where I took this picture on Sunday, and the sight and sound and smell of the place carried me back to that long ago summer.

The Honeymoon Cottage dates from a time when it was possible to build right on the water. The cottage is triangular and its narrow point actually extends over the water. The doorway shown in the picture opens to a small porch. Sitting on the porch is like being in a boat.

In the picture, the late afternoon sun streams through the windows, and that’s how I remember both the lake and the Honeymoon Cottage. No radio, no television, no telephone, no newspaper. We spent our days on the beach, or reading in the shade, walking in the woods or paddling a canoe along the shore.  There were long conversations, afternoon naps, and intimate evening meals with family and friends. At night we fell asleep to the sound of the lake lapping against the dock. In the morning, we lingered on the deck with cups of coffee.

When it was time to go home, we were never ready to leave.

Feeling Old at Any Age

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.


Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.


And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

—A.E. Housman

I wish I had had this little poem handy when I turned 25. That was the only time in my life that I really felt old. The phrase “quarter century” echoed in my mind and kept me more or less depressed for weeks.

Worse, I felt self-conscious about feeling bad. When I thought about it, I knew that twenty-five is not old, damn it, by any definition. Yet I felt ancient, and I felt stupid about feeling ancient. It was a losing proposition from every angle.

In 12 short lines, Housman seems to capture a similar phenomenon without self-consciousness as the “I” in the poem realizes he has “only” 50 of the biblical three score and ten left to live. There I was at 25, with “only” 45 left!

If the three score and ten is accurate, as of next month I’ll have only seven left; yet I feel younger than I did at 25.

The Greatest Thing Since…

Did you ever wonder about that expression, “the greatest thing since sliced bread”?

No? Neither did I, but that all changed when I received an e-mail from Aaron Bobrow-Strain, Assistant Professor of Politics at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Here’s what Prof. Bobrow-Strain had to say:

I am working on a book about the history America’s long love-hate relationship with sliced white bread—a story about how and why consumers get emotionally attached to processed foods. As part of this, I’m collecting stories and memories, particularly from Baby Boomers (or earlier generations), about white bread.

I’m hoping that you might be able to help this effort, either by contributing your own tales, or by helping me reach a broader audience with this request. I would appreciate any help you can offer.

What I’m interested in deals with questions like these:

  • When was white bread served in your home?
  • Who ate it and how much?
  • Did your family like it, hate it, other?
  • Who chose what kind of bread to get and how was this decision made?
  • Do you have any particular memories about white bread’s place in your family?

Thank you in advance

Well. In my family “bread” meant “white bread.” I may have been in college before I ever saw any other kind of bread. I was certainly in college before I ever actually tasted any other kind of bread.

Overall, my mother was an indifferent cook. Part of the reason for this, I’m sure, was that she really couldn’t tell the difference between excellent food and mediocre food. The result was that a lot of wretched meals were served up at our house with a fair amount of pride. My father judged food solely on the basis of quantity. If there was a lot of something, then it was good.

But there was one notable surprise about my mother’s cooking: she baked superb white bread and dinner rolls. The reason for this was that she had been taught how to do it by the chef in a summer resort hotel where she had worked as a waitress before she and my father were married. As I understand the story, she had passed diners’ compliments along to the chef about the excellent bread and rolls he prepared. He asked my mother if she would like to learn how to do it, and she said yes—more likely because she liked the attention than from any interest in food preparation.

She was, however, always a good student. The chef taught her to understand bread at a deeper level than she could explain. She didn’t even bother with a written recipe. In anyone’s kitchen and with any oven, her bread always came out the same, and it was always fabulous.

Family and friends were always asking her to bake it, and she was usually happy to accommodate them (she liked the attention). Her own lack of discrimination, however, meant that we got a lot less of her bread at home. Instead we got Wonder Bread and Sunbeam Batter-Whipped Bread and their store-brand equivalents. This was the stuff that my friend Bill would squeeze into gummy balls for use as fish bait.

Once alleged to build strong bodies 8 waysI know for a fact that Mom was the one who bought the Wonder Bread. My parents were rigorously conventional in many ways: Dad brought home his paycheck, and Mom ran the household. She was the one who did all of the grocery shopping and who made every single decision about what food was in the house.

One day about ten years before she died, I asked Mom to explain to me how she made bread. I hoped to be able to write a recipe that would produce a reasonable facsimile of her bread. My idea was that while she made bread and talked about what she was doing, I would write down what she said and did. I thought the recipe would emerge naturally (and definitively) from the notes I took, but I was doomed to failure.

For one thing, her process absolutely defied quantification. She started with two cakes of yeast, a cup of water and a cup of scalded milk. Happily I wrote:

  • 2 cakes yeast, softened in ¼c. (?) warm water
  • 1 c. warm water
  • 1 c. scalded whole milk

but no other measurable quantities were involved. She added salt and sugar by pouring them into her hand and considering how the quantity appeared.

  • 1-3 tsp. (?) salt
  • ¼ c. (???) sugar

She added flour by the scoop until there was “enough.”

“How,” I asked, “do you know when there is ‘enough’?”

“It’s easy,” she answered, holding up the dough. “You add flour until the dough falls off your hand, just so… Then you knead it.”


  • 4-7 c. flour (?)

“OK,” I said, “How hot should the oven be?”

“Here,” she said, opening the oven. “Roll up your sleeve and hold your forearm here by the oven. That’s the way it should feel when the oven is right.” I looked at the oven dial and guessed 375°.

  • Preheat oven to 350°-400°.

“So, how long should it bake?”

“Bake it until it’s a nice golden brown,” she explained. “Be careful not to overcook it.”

On that particular day, with those particular loaves and that particular oven, the bread came out in about 30 minutes.

  • Bake 20-40 min. until golden brown.

I worked up a recipe from what I had seen and heard and actually produced acceptable bread—but it was nothing like hers. Of course it was nothing like hers. I was trying to duplicate art by converting it first to science, then back to art. That much I now understand.

To this day, however, I puzzle over how it was that the woman with bread magic in her hand and eye thought Wonder Bread was just as good.

Game Face, Part Two

As I may have mentioned in this blog, my mother suffered from Parkinson’s Disease. She didn’t have the tremor, but she suffered horribly from the dementia. By the time she died in 1999, she didn’t know who I was about half the time.

Only one detail in the whole tragic story is amusing, and it relates directly to my previous post here. At the time Mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, one of the “symptoms” her doctors relied upon was what they called the “Parkinson’s Stone Face.” When a nurse took me aside and explained this to me, she was probably astonished—maybe even offended—when I burst out laughing.

“Stone face?” I said, when I regained my composure. “You really don’t understand. She always looks that way when she’s thinking about something. So do I. So does my daughter.”

The nurse shook her head and walked away. For all I know, she’s still telling the story the way it looked from her point of view. Maybe something like this:

I quit nursing because I was sick of dealing with the crazies—not the patients, the families! Just about the last straw was the guy who burst out laughing when I told him his poor mother had Parkinson’s Disease. What could he possibly have been thinking?

If you’re reading this, nurse, then now you know.